By BRUCE DENNILL
Acceptance / Directed by Simona Mazza / The Fringe, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
The subject matter that inspired this original work is heartbreaking, macabre and troublingly revealing. It takes as it’s core theme the 2014 event in which a South African woman living in England killed three of her children, all of whom were suffering from a condition known as Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). SMA affects the nerves controlling muscle function, leading to a number of difficulties in day to day life, from walking to eating and even breathing. The pressures of being the full-time caregiver for such a trio must have been energy- and emotion-sapping, but there can’t be an excuse for such a “solution”.
That’s the thrust of the narrative here, in a script that imagines that grown versions of the three murdered youngsters returning years later to confront the judge who handled the case, ultimately finding the mother guilty of manslaughter, with her “mental condition” given as a mitigating circumstance.
There’s one moment in the play when the audience realises just how tragically disenfranchised the children were in the situation under examination, never given any chance to communicate their feelings or thoughts. Indeed, in the media coverage of the event, the children’s names were omitted, with the word “disabled” being used as an apparently reasonable substitute.
Acceptance, then, has a very solid platform, and bringing this material back into the spotlight is important and commendable.
This piece, though, does a poor job of doing so. It feels more like a thesis with dialogue than a play, and the perormances are correspondingly clunky. Francois Viljoen as Nic gives, by virtue of his character being the angriest of those onstage, the most compelling performance of the lot, but that’s not saying much, as the script is little more than a collection of facts about SMA and bludgeoning the audience with the above-mentioned perspectives and thereby stripping them of their profundity as the piece continues.
There’s an especially strange scene in which Lisa Derryn Overy switches roles from playing the older sister Jemma to portraying the mother in the act of killing the children. There’s a long, histrionic monologue accompanied by avante-garde music – a melodramatic combination that doesn’t impress the first time around. When it’s repeated – why? – the friendliest description that can be applied is “surrealist Checkhov”; weird and unnecessary.
Jerry Mofokeng was brought in to add gravitas as the judge, but his lines and the interactions he’s expected to be part of give him little room to impress.
There is a decent play in here somewhere, and at an hour long, it will be well-suited to the festival circuit. But a good deal of development is still needed. At the moment it’s a speech with actions, not a story.